At The Movies: Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

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Under the Cherry Moon

★★☆☆☆

1986 • 100 minutes • Warner Bros.

Losing Prince last month affected me the same way losing Bowie in January did—abstractly. I was saddened, of course, but not hurt enough to want to take 2016 back to the celestial customer service counter. I just didn’t have a personal stake in either artist. For whatever reason, while Bowie and Prince’s music is prime territory for queer weirdos of all stripes, I never landed there to take sustenance. It’s certainly nothing they did. I just have a hard time connecting with music on that deep of a level.

Still, their passings into the Undying Lands were worthy of tribute from me. For Bowie, I lit my homemade David Bowie prayer candle for the first time (which I’d made last August, not, like, for the occasion) and saved a Best of Bowie Spotify playlist to my phone.

And for Prince? I watched Under the Cherry Moon with my comedy troupe from college.

Now, to be fair, Purple Rain was in contention as well, but, as a fan of the eighties, I wanted to watch Purple Rain for the first time in a different and slightly more worshipful context. A midnight movie crowd would be ideal, but I have lately discovered that my biorhythms are those of a medieval French farmer. My apparent biological directive to wake up at the crack of dawn (and, presumably, hike a mile up to the cheese cave to gently turn all those wheels of dairy forty-five degrees to the left) means that midnight movies are largely no longer an option. Je suis desolée.

So Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s infamous flop, it was. If you are unfamiliar with the plot of Under the Cherry Moon (and, honestly, who would blame you?), let me sum up. Against a backdrop of the toniest denizens of the Riviera, Prince attempts to seduce $50 million dollars out of Kristin Scott Thomas in her first major film role. (It’s one she’d really rather you forget.)

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At the Movies: New Year’s Eve (2011)

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New Year’s Eve

★★☆☆☆

2011 • 118 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures

Of the winter holidays, New Year’s Eve is the most refreshingly secular. After we’ve all been run ragged by familial and religious obligations (look, I adore my werewolf niblings, but they eat up a lot more energy than I’m used to!), it’s a holiday perfect for revelry or reflection. Even the major tradition is resolving to improve your habits, which is rather vague and, let’s face it, easily ignored.

But that same refreshing secularity has made New Year’s Eve almost impervious to the holiday special. If It’s a Wonderful Life, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Miracle on 34th Street are meant to teach us the true meaning of Christmas (goodwill towards your fellow man, even if they’re related to you, and presents, obviously), then the stumbling block for New Year’s Eve is obvious: the true meaning of New Year’s Eve is that it’s New Year’s Eve. Upon this tautology, no film can be built.

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Page to Screen: Ella Enchanted (2004)

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Ella Enchanted
based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine

★★☆☆☆

2004 • 96 minutes • Buena Vista Pictures

I was two-thirds of the way through Ella Enchanted when I realized I’d never seen Ella Enchanted before. I mean, it seemed so obvious! In 2004, I was a preteen mourning the loss of The Lord of the Rings who had, in fact, actually read Ella Enchanted and liked it. I even distinctly remember reading about Cary Elwes playing the villain in this film and taking a moment to think about what he would even look like with darker hair. (I am always fascinated by what natural blondes look like with darker hair, for reasons presumably related to my lifelong adventures in hair color.)

And yet, when Heidi Klum turned up as the giantess Brumhilda, I realized that I was on deeply unfamiliar ground. I must have been stitching something together out of The Princess Diaries and A Knight’s Tale to heal over the mental wound this film inflicted on my generation of lady geeks. It’s a wound so deep that, when I proposed this film to my erstwhile Valkyries as a bad film to skewer, even those mighty mavens balked. Surely, though, with a decade between both me and the film and me and my culturally bloodthirsty preteen self, I could take a gentler and wider view on this much reviled film.

(Also Hannibal’s seeped into my bloodstream enough that I am compelled to seek out the filmography of both Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, so expect King Arthur to be covered in these pages soon enough. Moving on…)

Ella Enchanted has precious little to do with the novel it’s based on, besides its basic premise. A girl named Ella is given the “gift” of obedience by a fairy, she goes to a giant’s wedding, and she falls in love with a prince named Char(mont). Other than that, they largely have nothing to do with one another, which makes Ella Enchanted, essentially, Shrek for teenage girls.

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Review: Mermaids in Paradise

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Mermaids in Paradise
by Lydia Millet

★★☆☆☆

2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company

Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”

If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)

But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.

For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!

(Vomit.)

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Review: Hideous Love

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Hideous Love
by Stephanie Hemphill

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 320 pages • Balzer + Bray

Oh, Mary Shelley. Daughter of fundamental English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, inventor of science fiction, and all around literary—dare I say it—monster. I only grow fonder of her the more I learn about her. I even might be biased towards The Bride of Frankenstein not for the Bride herself, but for the film opening with Elsa Lanchester’s Mary Shelley primly accepting Lord Byron’s stilted praise in one of the most stunning gowns of early Hollywood. (Even if it’s mostly to underline that there’s a moral point to the proceedings to free it from guilt.) I note the century-spanning gap of eighty-one years between that depiction of Shelley and the forthcoming dueling 2016 biopics A Storm in the Stars and Mary Shelley’s Monster with the most cutting of side eyes.

So Stephanie Hemphill’s young adult novel about Shelley, Hideous Love, with its near pre-Raphaelite cover of a redheaded young woman bent in a pose that recalls both Atlas and Prometheus, was catnip to me. I was always happy when the economies of space allowed me to face it out in the young adult nook back at the Tattered Cover. But, as ever, I dragged my feet about actually reading the darn thing. Although “drag my feet” is a poor metaphor for my reading habits—“got distracted by other books like a concussed magpie” is more like it. It’s a useful, if disorganized, methodology, because it lets me come to books fresh.

So fresh, in fact, that I had no idea that Hideous Love is a verse novel.

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At The Movies: Wayne’s World 2 (1993)

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Wayne’s World 2

★★☆☆☆

1993 • 95 minutes • Paramount Pictures

I think Mike Myers invented teenage boys. Specifically, both flavors of teenage boy that I encountered in my childhood seem traceable back to him—the just under the wire snarky Gen Xers known as my brother and his friends, as well as the masculine Millennials I actually went to class with. Both variants were capable of easy charm and smug, self-satisfied snark; the difference was the ratio. As someone roughly a decade younger than her older brother, I was not privy to the exact ratio those frost-tipped Gen X boys had, but it was certainly more balanced than the Millennial snots I actually suffered through class with. (Were they all snots? Probably not, but boys were afraid of me in middle school. As nature intended.)

Wayne’s World and Wayne’s World 2 both have that same kind of charm and smugness, but it works in Wayne’s World because the smugness comes across as a production team simply delighted that they get to make this movie—Mike Myers bringing Wayne to the big screen, Tia Carrere getting a chance to play a well-rounded female lead in a big summer movie, and director Penelope Spheeris getting to do a comedy. There’s a bit in the brief behind-the-scenes featurette on the Wayne’s World DVD where Myers talks about how he and Carvey had to figure out how Wayne and Garth, previously always seated, walked, and he simply lights up at that little detail. (Myers went for the subtle front half of a centaur gait.) Plus, Wayne’s World never feels like it’s punching down; Wayne and Garth rarely goof off at the expense of other people. I mean, it happens, don’t get me wrong, but they’re just as much the butt of the joke as other people.

Wayne’s World 2, however, is almost all smug, self-satisfied snark. Is it because the turnaround between both films was, frankly, absurdly quick? Is it because the gentling punk rock hand of Penelope Spheeris is absent? Is it because the movie forgets that Wayne and Garth enjoy their lives as is? It’s because of all of those things, and more.

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Review: Publish and Perish

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Publish and Perish
by James Hynes

★★☆☆☆

1998 (originally published 1997) • 338 pages • Picador

The more I read about the peculiar, insular world of higher academia, the more I think of it as a horror show. It’s an obviously biased perspective, especially since I respond to my mother’s repeated queries about the possibility of grad school by braying “NOOOO” at the top of my lungs. I mean, I have friends from college who are attending graduate school with the elegance, grace, and ferocity I expect out of my fellow Valkyries (look, your college wasn’t as cool as mine, it’s okay, we can move on together). They seem to be managing just fine! But reading about why Our Lady of Gossip Anne Helen Petersen left academia for BuzzFeed last December sent me leaping from article to article about both the poor employment prospects facing would-be academics and the poor treatment those academics receive if they do get hired.

With that atmosphere firmly planted in my headspace, out of the depths of my reading list emerged Publish and Perish, a trilogy of three horror novellas set in academia. Long time readers may remember that the unnameable behemoth that is my reading list was birthed in 2009 out of a copy of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust in my high school library. Publish and Perish is, if I recall correctly, one of the first recommendations in Book Lust (or More Book Lust, which I also heartily raided). I bring this up because Publish and Perish feels like a blast from the past—both my personal past, when I gobbled up recommendations essentially sight unseen (…like, way more than I do now) and the past of 1997, when Publish and Perish was published.

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At The Movies: Macgruber (2009)

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MacGruber

★★☆☆☆

2009 • 99 minutes • Universal Pictures

When the MacGyver parody turned film MacGruber was selected as the Dissolve’s Film of the Week, there was a bit of an outcry, insofar as the Dissolve’s expertly curated and very polite commenteriat can cry out. Previously, most of the Films of the Week had been, if not recognized good films, at least films with either merit, undeniable cultural cache, or both. (Guess which one Top Gun falls under. Although Val Kilmer’s face in that film is plenty meritorious.) But what’s the point of discussing a film if we’re all just going to agree that it’s wonderful, so wonderful? There’s certainly a place and a time for it—there’s plenty of crying over Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the Church of Bowie—but it’s always more interesting to get multiple perspectives on something, especially something that’s often dismissed. I thought that highlighting such a divisive and largely derided film was a brilliant idea.

Although, apparently, not brilliant enough for me to go out and rent the darn thing immediately. No, it took the current throes of my second stab at Saturday Night Live fandom (this time, it’s personal) to drive me into the knee-high garden of mixed delights that is the back catalog of films based on Saturday Night Live sketches. My adoration of Will Forte’s tenderhearted madness, eighties pastiches, and the pop culture deconstructions of The Lonely Island (who only began to shine a light into the fascinating and horrifying remix culture depths currently mined by “Too Many Cooks,” Neil Cicierega, and their heirs on Saturday Night Live, Good Neighbor) had finally gotten the better of me. Or, more specifically, the better of Captain Cinema and I, because she’s the one who fetched the DVD from the public library.

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At The Movies: Ghostbusters (1984)

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Ghostbusters

★★☆☆☆

1984 • 107 minutes • Columbia Pictures

 

Should we watch Ghostbusters for Halloween?

Normally, I simply announce home screenings by texting Captain Cinema (which is how she found out we’re watching New Year’s Eve for New Year’s Eve, which is one hundred percent because Seth Meyers is in it), but Ghostbusters was a question. You see, I should love Ghostbusters. It combines Saturday Night Live, science fiction, and the eighties. Had my brother, actual child of the eighties, introduced me to the film at a young age, I have no doubt that I would love and adore it.

But my brother was a Back to the Future kind of kid, who also naturally kept a small child who destroyed comics at an arm’s length from the things he loved, so I didn’t discover Ghostbusters until the universe took pity on my utter ignorance of American pop culture and I Love the 80s aired on VH1. It was one of the first movies I tried to get my hands on in high school, but I was ashamed to find that I couldn’t get into it. I didn’t really think about it (The Sound of Music is always a much more impressive example of the pop culture I’ve never experienced than any eighties film) until I was seized by an errant, quickly fading urge to watch it. If I was ever to watch Ghostbusters, it had to be Halloween.

And, having finally watched Ghostbusters, I can safely say: I don’t think I like young Bill Murray.

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Review: Mordred, Bastard Son

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Mordred, Bastard Son

by Douglas Clegg

★★☆☆☆

2006 • 360 pages • Alyson Books

What’s the dividing line between fiction and fan fiction?

Obviously, there’s the major demarcation between your intellectual property and someone else’s intellectual property, but even that hard and fast legal definition ignores the fact that the vast majority of historical fiction is real person fic and the widespread plundering of the public domain by everyone under the sun. Creatively, though, the artistic impulses behind original fiction and fan fiction are totally different. The writer of fan fiction isn’t writing in a fandom because she lacks imagination (this is me pulling out my bullhorn and bellowing “DIANA GABALDON” at the top of my not inconsiderable lungs); she’s writing in that fandom because she’s responding to that text in a very specific way. That response can be as simple as “I think John and Sherlock should make out, so I’ll write some smut” to “Watchmen doesn’t have enough female characters, so I’ll genderflip the whole thing.” And so we stumble across another line: how far away from a text can your fan fiction (or retelling, homage, or “reimagining,” as the legal and published ones are advertised) get before it simply circles back and becomes your own story in a way that is decidedly different from a fan reclaiming Doctor Who for herself from Moffat? If it’s simply keeping the names the same, what does it say that an alternative universe fic like Master of the Universe can, with little to no effort, become Fifty Shades of Grey?

So perhaps we can answer today’s first question with today’s last question, purloined from Shakespeare, that great writer of fic—what’s in a name?

In his introductory remarks to Mordred, Bastard Son, Douglas Clegg states that his intention in writing the now cancelled Mordred trilogy is to both tell Mordred’s side of the story and inject some gay representation into the Arthurian myths. These are classic fan writer impulses, and I was prepared to tuck into something along the lines of The Mists of Avalon—to see the complex motivations behind the choices we know from the canonical text.

But Mordred, Bastard Son doesn’t really tell the story of a man maligned by history for his acts in defense of the old religion. In fact, it doesn’t really tell the story of Mordred as we know it, because it never gets there. This is not something I can entirely lay at Clegg’s feet, as the trilogy was abandoned by his publisher after its publication. (He has said, as of this year, that he plans on publishing the other two installments, but they have not materialized.) And yet, for a novel about a character whose involvement in Arthur’s downfall is certainly the most iconic part of his story, Clegg is in little to no rush to get Mordred to Camelot. There’s a little bit of The Name of the Wind in Mordred, Bastard Son, as Mordred tells his story to a curious onlooker over the course of several days (with the frame story still technically in media res), neatly separating out three acts into three novels. Of course, that only works if those three acts have acts of their own. That’s the eternal difficulty of constructing a satisfying trilogy.

Telling the story of Mordred’s childhood, raised by his mother Morgan le Fay on the idyllic but isolated Isle of Glass, could have been a satisfying story in itself. With little external plot required until Mordred ventures to Camelot, it would have been a perfect opportunity to dig into everyone’s motivations, explore Mordred’s sexuality, and lay the groundwork for the story ahead. But the story Clegg ends up telling is the story of a young hero destined for greatness, whose complex relationship with his mother and his aunt, who both have very legitimate reasons for despising Arthur (Arthur raped Morgan; Morgause tried to play by the rules of the new world order and lost everything), is flattened when Morgause simply cracks, turns evil, and raises an army of the dead to kill Guinevere for reasons. Mordred must ride to her rescue. That’s one way to rehabilitate a character: completely rewrite him and leave him at the mercy of fate.

Without the Arthurian names, in fact, you would probably mistake it for a pretty generic fantasy novel notable only for its representational value. Clegg’s invented culture for Mordred and Morgan’s people sit oddly with the vaguely historical events going on, even though it fondly reminded me of gorging on mediocre fantasy novels as a preteen. There are some interesting changes to Arthurian legend that would have been fascinating to see play out against the traditional story (which we do not get to)—Merlin as a gruff bear of a man, Excalibur as a cursed, One Ring-like sword, and Mordred having to swear a vow of chastity in order to learn magic. But they fizzle. I’ll grant Clegg Excalibur, as we do not even encounter it in this installment, but Mordred’s chastity becomes the bane of his existence once he encounters a handsome hermit.

Given the novel’s fondness for telling instead of showing, despite the passing of the years in the story, this means that the topic that is discussed the most in Mordred, Bastard Son is Mordred complaining that he can’t have sex—because he’s the only gay kid in the village at first, and then because of his magical vow of chastity. Mordred as the only gay kid in the village is an odd choice, given that it’s talked about—at length—that the Isle of Glass is so pro-queer that it hosts same-sex hand fastings. Mordred’s situation is clearly meant to echo alienated queer kids in straight spaces, but the Isle of Glass is explicitly a welcoming space.

I realize that The Mists of Avalon, especially given that I read it as an impressionable preteen, has set a bar for Arthurian retellings for me that few can match. But Mordred, Bastard Son is not very interested in even trying.

I rented this book from the public library.